KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Saturday at the NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament, the toughest tournament to win, is all about having fuel in the tank, having something left in reserves to finish off an opponent.
Three intense do-or-die games in as many days drains a player, a coach and a team as a whole, and not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally.
The carnage that is left behind on a Saturday evening at the NAIAs is a heap of spent and wasted bodies, gasping for relief and rest. The loser is devastated, sprawled on the floor, more out of exhaustion than sheer disappointment from the ending of a season. The winner is hardly in any better condition, too spent to even offer a celebratory high-five to one another.
But the Cougars, yes exhausted and weary, are the ones who will wake-up tomorrow in a better state of mind and body, and as a team that will high-five one another. They’re back in the NAIA Fab Four for the fifth time in 11 years.
The No. 13-seeded Cougars put the pedal to the metal and jettisoned to a commanding 24-point lead in the second half, which was enough of a cushion for Azusa Pacific to eventually settle for a 75-70 victory over No. 12 Lee University (Tenn.) in Saturday’s NAIA Tournament quarterfinal game in Municipal Auditorium.
Azusa Pacific so dominant in its first 35 minutes of play, so far out in front of the foe, that it didn’t need any petro in its tank at the end, coasting, albeit somewhat nervously, the final 5 minutes to pick up its third NAIA Tournament win since Thursday afternoon.
“I’m thankful that we played a great 35 minutes of basketball to get ourselves that lead and that we have a deep team with other guys who were ready to step up and close it out,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie, who is taking the Cougars to the Fab Four for the first time as a coach after appearing in 2 others as a player.
All-Golden State Athletic Conference guard Marshall Johnson, who came into today’s game having made just 3-of-14 of shots (and one of them was a dunk) in the tourney thus far, found his stroke from deep range, pumping a trio of treys in the opening half to ignite a 17-6 Cougar run and propel Azusa Pacific to a surprising 50-31 halftime lead.
“My grandfather left me a voicemail saying that today was going to be my day,” said Johnson. “After I hit the first 3 I thought I needed to go back to it again, and when I hit the second one I thought, ‘I just might be hot.’ My game started rolling from there.”
Johnson scored 14 of his game-high 16 points in the opening half, draining back-to-back bombs to put Azusa Pacific up 32-17 with 6 minutes left in the half. The Cougars were in the midst of making 7-of-8 shots in a 4-minute stretch that turned a 24-17 lead into a ballooning 40-23 advantage.
“Lee plays a defense that allows you to take open shots, and we made them,” said Leslie. “They do everything they can to take away the paint from you, and oftentimes you take what the defense gives you. They gave us the 3 today and we knocked them down. I was concerned that we would fall in love with the 3 and shoot too many of them, and we came close to that.”
Admittedly, the Cougars have a Kansas City funk in which first half leads vanish in the final 20 minutes. It’s what happened in each of their past 3 NAIA Tourney punch-outs. Yet there would be none of that today.
After the Flames opened the second half with a nothing-but-net jumper by Chad James, Azusa Pacific countered with a Dominique Johnson 3-pointer to give the Cougars their first of several 20-point leads. Marshall Johnson answered another Flame bucket with one of his own, his only field goal of the second half, and the Cougars kept their 20-point cushion.
Without an ability to stop Azusa Pacific’s consistent onslaught, Lee seemingly yielded to Azusa Pacific’s will. For every Flame field goal, the Cougars had one of their own and eventually built its lead to 24 on a couple of times, the last coming on Dominique Johnson’s jumper that gave Azusa Pacific a 69-45 lead with 7:22 left in the game. While all was seemingly in control, little did anyone know at the time that Johnson’s jumper would be Azusa Pacific’s last field goal of the game.
Down the stretch, the Cougars missed 5 shots, committed 3 turnovers and missed 8-of-14 free throws, this from a team that entered the game converting an impressive 72-percent of its free throw attempts.
The tank was empty, and the Cougars were coasting downhill.
Complicating issues was the loss of point guard Mike Caffese, who went down with a sprained ankle with 2:25 remaining to play though Azusa Pacific was still up by 15 at 69-54.
After starting the game by making just 1-of-17 shots from beyond the arc, Lee got hot, burying 5 shots at the 3-point line. Stephen McClellan made 3 treys, including one that turned into a 4-point play on Dominique Johnson’s foul. The Flames were back within 9 at 71-62 with 57 seconds left in the game.
Azusa Pacific missed 5 of its next 7 free throws in a matter of 22 seconds, including 2 off an intentional foul. When Flame Jerel Blocker dropped in a lay-up, Lee pulled to within 3 at 73-70 with 23 seconds left.
Cougars David Stafford and Reggie Owens each made 1-of-2 free throws, and when an out-of-control, dribbling Caleb Skogen slammed into Lee’s basket standard to turn the ball over with 11 seconds left, Azusa Pacific had crossed the finish line. A winner without fuel.
Owens matched Marshall Johnson’s performance with 16 points while collecting a game-high 9 rebounds. Dominique Johnson added 15 points. Before being helped off the court, Caffese registered 8 points, 4 assists and 4 steals in 23 minutes of action.
Blocker and Josh Nofflet each tallied 15 to lead Lee, which suffers just its second loss in 2 months and 17 games and has its season come to an end at 28-7.
“I’m tired, but it’s a great feeling to be in the semis, to be playing another game on Monday,” said Marshall Johnson as he walked to the locker room as a worn out winner. “To see all the smiles on the players and coaches is great. But we’re not done.”
Azusa Pacific tips off the first of 2 Monday semifinal games against Southern Poly, which overcame a 15-point deficit and fashioned a 24-7 run over the final 7 minutes of the game to beat John Brown University (Ark.), 71-66. The Hornets, who are making their first-ever appearance in the NAIA Fab Four, has won 8 straight and is 29-5 on the season.
In tonight’s other quarterfinals, Robert Morris College (Ill.) downed Southern Nazarene University (Okla.), 109-101. Oklahoma Baptist University came back from 16 down in the second half to beat Biola University, 59-54. Robert Morris and Oklahoma Baptist will play in the other semi following the Azusa Pacific-Southern Poly game.